Rio Olympics Worldwide Audience to Top 3.5 Billion, IOC Estimates

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New ways of watching are fragmenting audiences, but around half the world will have caught some part of the Olympics on traditional TV this year by the time of the closing ceremony.

The final figures aren't in yet, but the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is already judging the Rio Summer Games a ratings success on par with London in 2012.

Based on early estimates, the IOC says viewership this year is on par with that in 2012, when some 3.6 billion people — or around half of the world's total population of 7 billion — caught at least one minute of the Olympic Games.

Even ratings for the opening ceremony, which dipped sharply in the U.S. and across Europe compared to London, made up the numbers elsewhere, particularly in South America. The IOC estimates some 342 million people watched the start of the Rio Games, about the same number that saw the opening ceremony of the London Olympics four years ago. Those figures are down significantly from the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which broke all ratings records with more than 1 billion viewers worldwide.

The IOC has countered reports of ratings declines in some territories — most notably in the U.S. — by pointing to the increase in viewing across online and mobile platforms, arguing that the combined viewership is comparable with London.

What's undeniable is that fans worldwide have access to more Olympics coverage than ever before. Networks, according to the IOC, have increased TV coverage 25 percent compared to 2012, with 125,000 hours of output, with digital coverage jumping to 81,500 hours available, 2.5 times what was on offer in London.

Timo Lumme, managing director of IOC Television and Marketing Services, told Reuters that NBC's online viewership of more than 2 billion streaming minutes so far is higher than the activity for the previous five Olympics combined.

It remains to be seen, however, if the resulting audience fragmentation will impact advertising revenues and the price networks worldwide are willing to pay for Olympic rights. For this year's games, the IOC says TV revenue is up a solid 7.1 percent over the previous four years to $4.1 billion.